In addition to being the strongest pro-choice argument in horror since Rosemary’s Baby, Silent Hill 3 is probably the most out-and-out terrifying game the series has to offer (PT might’ve reduced me to whimpering in a corner, but a playable demo isn’t eligible for the crown). It’s also the only one with a non-vaguely brunet white dude protagonist, arguably excluding dishwater-blond James (try putting the Silent Hill protagonists in a lineup and asking a relatively new fan to distinguish them – it’s as hilarious as it is mildly depressing). But I digress. The point is that 3 centers on both a teenage girl and the character who has the most enmeshed connection to the town’s cult-of-crazy, both of which set it apart as a narrative-gaming experience. Also it has the best UFO ending, but that’s perhaps outside this essay’s purview.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For those in need of a refresher, the plot goes like this: 17 year old Heather is on her way home from the mall when she’s approached by a creepy private detective who’s been hired to search for her. Trying to escape through a nearby bathroom, she winds up surrounded by Silent Hill’s traditional grime and monsters and tracked down by cultists who claim she’s their savior. Heather just wants to get home…where it turns out a little revenge is in order. If you’d like a trip through the game but lack the hardware or iron nerves, you can check out a good Let’s Play here.
But anyway, horror as an exploration of female anxieties. Here we go.
I. Terrorized Safe Spaces
II. The Body as Alien
III. Women With Chainsaws
I. Terrorized Safe Spaces
Rather famously, SH3 takes almost half the game to get to the titular town. A lot of the settings in the first half are downright mundane, in fact, something that the game knows well. Heather’s nightmare of monstrous carnival (and the closest thing the games might ever come to a tutorial) is pretty spooky, but it’s also rather removed – control’s taken from the player long before she walks the last steps down those tracks, and ‘we’ wake before there are any consequences.
Instead, the sense of unease starts with a reversal of what occurs very early on in the first two games: the protagonist speaks with someone who has unwittingly gotten tangled up in the goings-on of the town or its cult. That interaction has gotten more eerie with time: for Harry it’s a net positive, since he’s speaking with the ironclad good of the law and receiving his primary means of defense; for James it’s effectively neutral, since Angela is erratic but attempting to warn him away (in addition to being physically smaller than he is; but for Heather, she’s in an already deserted area being approached by a larger, older man who’s insistent on ‘speaking with her privately’ and who won’t go away until she enters the supposed ‘safe zone’ of the women’s restroom. That sets a unique tone right off the bat – there doesn’t have to be monsters for the world to be a threatening place, not for a young woman alone.
The alternate costumes really do their part to make this as uncomfortable as possible
The other defining half of that conversation is Heather’s escape to the bathroom. Let’s face it – were Douglas an intent rapist rather than an unfortunately creepy PI, the sign on that bathroom door wasn’t going to be any kind of deterrent. It’s a completely arbitrary marker but is nonetheless is a place that feels instinctively safe, where by societal contract men aren’t allowed to go. And lo and behold, sprayed onto the mirror is the very first save marker. It’s a passive aggressive instillation of paranoia that’s the beginning of instilling in the (what the marketing most certainly would’ve assumed was Straight Male) gamer what women are constantly grappling with: you think you’ve found someplace safe? Fuck you, every place you go might have something awful and menacing around the next corner. It’s rape culture with bulbous flesh monsters (for those in need of a refresher, rape culture is a cultural attitude wherein rape is normalized/expected because of objectification, victim blaming, and perpetuation of harmful stereotypes).
Once the bathroom kicks things off, the paranoia never stops. Every place is dangerous: the mall, the subway (this is particularly applicable in the game’s home country, what with all those signs warning about men looking up girls’ skirts – for a rape culture bonus, those are often framed as ‘be warned this is happening’ rather than ‘STOP DOING THAT, YOU FUCKS’), a construction site (can we all name the stereotypical origin of the catcall?), an office building (harassment in the workplace being its own barrel of fun), and so on. Victims of assault can often have difficulty shaking their trauma, seeing echoes of it that turn the everyday into the threatening. And all women are taught that they are potential victims, to see that same threat around every corner just in case. The game doesn’t just put us in Heather’s shoes, but in the mindset in which she’d be expected to live. Even the gameplay itself is out to get you – this is by far the most difficult game of the series, with scarcer ammo, tougher enemies, and more deathtraps around every corner (unlike Harry and James, Heather can fall into the abyss at various times).
Just when the horrific normal seems to be behind the game (when the story shifts over to the typically male driven revenge genre, putting poor Harry in the thankless position of many a fictional wife/mother of being mentioned frequently only to be unceremoniously offed offscreen), it keeps elements of the ‘threat to women’ theme – mostly through Heather’s stalker Stanley Coleman, who is as bone-chillingly creepy as anything the otherworld has to offer. Take tone out of it, and Stanley has echoes of the ‘Nice Guy’ archetype: he declares his love, he gives Heather gifts, a key that’s crucial to continuing the game is found near one of his notes. It’s a long time before his overtures get violent undertones (toward her, anyway). To his mind, he’s been nothing but a gentleman – of course she’ll love him back! But on Heather’s side, all we see if this scary bastard who’s always watching and whose approach (the diary messages and even the phone call) don’t allow much response or rejection. The depowering element becomes the most frightening part, even over the words themselves.
II. The Body as Alien
Besides Vincent’s immortal “they look like monsters to you?” line, the most famous scene from the game is likely the infamous “mirror room.” There are no monsters in it, just (as the name would imply) a wall-sized mirror with a grimy otherworld in its reflection. Then the corruption seeps through to the ‘real’ side of the room – and as the ‘real’ room becomes infected Heather’s reflection becomes locked in place, becoming more and more monstrous. As the room becomes a bubbling hellscape Heather is locked inside, unable to escape until she’s moments from death. It’s a brilliant scare: the corrupted Heather is uncanny but separated, unable to do anything more than stare. The locked door evokes the frozen reflection without actually stopping the player from desperately trying to escape, creating a sense of slow and deadly futility.
It’s…not an unapt metaphor for pregnancy, in a way. Watching a body that looks like yours become swollen and changed by an invading force, gradually limiting that body’s capabilities until it seems like nothing more than a you-shaped vessel. Wanted pregnancy gets its fair dues as a miracle of life and all, but in any situation it can be damned terrifying, and SH3 hammers that home in some impressively understated ways.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar
Except when it’s an enormous slimy dick monster
The warping of bodies is a unifying factor for much of the monster design as well. The first boss is a giant phallic worm; the “insane cancers” are distended, swollen nightmares with prominent stomachs; Valtiel drags Heather offscreen after a game over (making this the only game in the series where the dead protagonist isn’t just left to rot), carrying on that uncomfortable rape imagery even as it’s in the service of a ‘rebirth.’ All across the game are recognizable human shapes distended or oversized in some way, set alongside the inescapable mother-and-child imagery that’s sprinkled across Silent Hill itself. It’s not just a fear of pregnancy itself but of being made something less than human in the service of being a vessel, with one’s recognizable humanity all but lost beneath the swollen appendages.
III. Women With Chainsaws
I’ve been on about the looming threat of the male figure in this game, but it’s not to be overlooked that the most fascinating conflict at the story’s center is between two women. And a tragic opposition it is – we look at two equally strong-willed characters who came from the same toxic background, placed on opposing sides because one of them got out. In fact, Claudia is an easy contender for the series’ most tragic antagonist, her abusive childhood and lonely devotion to a person’s memory driving her to create a ‘paradise’ she doesn’t even think she deserves.
Points for the uncanniness of Claudia’s design – she’s roughly 30,
but maintains a sense of childishness and agelessness simultaneously
Giving so much time to Claudia’s background and motives (SH4’s Walter is similarly tragic in theory, but is such a remote and terrifying figure in-game that it takes a mighty force of fandom to make him any kind of cuddly) is probably the game’s greatest accomplishment. Through Claudia, we see what Heather might become: someone enshrining a memory and driven to horrible deeds in the name of it (indeed, in the “Possession” ending this is precisely what happens, as Heather’s high body count leads to Douglas being the first of a presumed many victims). It’s a human element that, alongside Harry’s posthumous letters, grounds SH3 between the scares-focused and somewhat plot-perfunctory SH1 and the emotions shattering sledgehammer of SH2’s character study.
It’s even tragic on the level of themes we’ve been discussing: while Heather is free to forge her own path and fight off the terrorizing elements around her, Claudia is so enmeshed in the rules and structures of her upbringing that her desires must be warped to see through them. It’s an internalized self-loathing trying to dig deep enough to see light on the other side – a sincere desire to make the world a better place coupled with the idea that she doesn’t deserve what she’s had a hand in forging (tied textually into her actions, but not difficult to connect to the frequently subservient position of women in many religions).
Heather might not be much better in some ways, as that crusade for revenge didn’t bring Harry back and didn’t even really soothe her pain. But the crucial difference is that it allowed her, once again, to sever ties with the past (excluding what she chose to claim – her given name) and start with a blank slate. She’s managed to bring the structure of paranoia and lurking violence down, and now anything is possible. Would that the real world had something so tangible to fight.